Lincoln and

Parallel Lives in
Civil War Washington

<Daniel Mark Epstein
Epstein's conceit is that although Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman both lived in Washington D.C, at the same time and although they never met, they heavily influenced one other. Lincoln had read a copy of Leaves of Grass, and since he never forgot anything he read, Whitman's style became his style.

    The poetry of Whitman Lincoln did read left its mark upon him in 1857. In that transitional year a change came over Lincoln. The change is evident in his speeches, an alternation in idiom that has never been thoroughly explained.

Epstein goes on to compare speeches from before and from after --- the first a protest of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise' the second from 1857, attacking the Dred Scott decision. His claim: the latter is

    the work of a seasoned orator in control of a rich battery of figures and metrical rhythms --- an orator who grasps the charm of poetry and its power to unleash the emotions of both speaker and audience.

As far as Lincoln's influence on Whitman, the poet evidently spent many happy hours larking about in the dusty streets of Washington, awaiting the President's carriage to pass so he could raise his hat and catch the executive eye. Further, the last few years of Whitman's life were spent giving a speech --- the same speech delivered time and time again --- on Lincoln. It was a speech that would never fail to bring a tear to the eyes of the audiences of the 1880s.

Spending a whole book on mythical near-meetings of two of the most famous Americans of the time seems a bit much. Further, this reader is not convinced that all that Epstein claims came to pass came to pass, especially with the extended descriptions of what went through Lincoln's brain as he rode through the streets on April 12, 1863. This stretches the author's visionary powers somewhat: "Such thoughts passed through his mind that morning as he rode down Vermont Avenue toward the White House.

    And there once again the smiling graybeard with the beautiful gray eyes stood by the curb, his face beaming goodwill and encouragement, waiting to bestow his benediction.

"We have got so that we always exchange bows, and very cordial ones," wrote the poet.

It seems somewhat doubtful that Lincoln would be bowing to this scruffy bum hanging out on the streets of Washington, especially in the midst of a bitter and ruinous war with many layabouts, not to say his opponents, hankering to be done with him.

Given his many dreams and premonitions on his own death, and if he was eyeing Whitman at all --- he was probably wondering exactly what kind of guns the good grey poet was carrying around in his pockets.

That they "exchanged bows" is Whitman's story, but he was a notorious liar. At one point in his life he had written to a friend of his in England, reporting that he had had five lady loves and three children --- or three lady loves and five children, I forget which --- all tales constructed by him to counter the impression given in Leaves of Grass that he was bestowing kisses on every muscled workingman he came across in the low-life bars of New York.

§     §     §

What makes Lincoln and Whitman worth reading is not the story of what the two of them may or may not have done to and with each other; rather, it is the host of facts about them and their world. How the public grew quickly to detest the war. How potty Mary Todd Lincoln got to be after the death of her favorite son Will. How Lincoln wandered around the White House in his nighties, eating fried oysters, gag, for a 3 AM breakfast.

How he played his political enemies --- especially the beguilingly named Salmon Portland Chase, his Secretary of the Treasury --- like a master. How Whitman used every device he could think of to plump up his own fame. What a layabout he was, and at the same time, the depths of devotion he gave to the hideously wounded soldiers flooding in to the hospitals of Washington during the Civil War.

Most of all, Epstein evokes the ebb and flood of the tides of war, such that no one knew from one moment to the next who would be the victor, right up to the decisive battle that took Atlanta on September 4, 1864.

Epstein's fantasy about Lincoln and Whitman is not much different than Whitman's convincing portrayal of the death of the President, delivered as if he were actually in Ford's theatre on that fateful night. He wasn't, but no doubt, in his twilight years, with his "Lecture on Lincoln" in such demand, he was able to convince a majority of his fans that it was so.

A more shadowy problem for some readers --- especially this one --- has to do with the poetics of Walt Whitman. Some people seem to like poems to be flat-out noisy, but for others of us, Whitman's have all the subtlety of a stock car race coupled with the lyricism of a pool-hall brawl. Many of us had the fortune to be given our daily doses of poetry in the form of Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Keats, Byron, Tennyson and Burns long before they dumped Whitman on us. Thus, we never grew all that fond of his "barbaric yawp" (as he himself termed it).

Epstein's own tin ear seems to match that of the poet's. He insists on including most if not all of the endless, soporific, overwrought (and overweight) "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." He includes an extended analysis telling us in too many words why he feels it is such a sensitive, artful poem, comparing it favorably to the elegies of Shelley and Milton.

He then turns around and trashes "Captain My Captain," with its great (and brief, thank god) symbolic power --- the crowds calling to the dead master, urging him to rise; the exquisite switch where the captain of the ship of state becomes "My father" who "has no pulse nor will."

It is one of the poet's most sensitive, balanced, and worthy works, but apparently not to the writer. Chacun á a son gout. Epstein's appreciation of the poet's output is as eccentric as the supposed union of poet and president. C'est plus qu'un crime, c'est une faute.

--- A. W. Allworthy

In a German

<Katherine Mansfield
Mansfield's story, "The Child-Who-Was-Always-Tired" --- part of this collection --- sounds like something that might have been written by Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson, or Donald Barthelme. The girl is "free-born --- daughter of the waitress at the railroad station."

    They found her mother trying to squeeze her head in the wash-hand jug, and the child's half silly,

says the Frau, who now employs her. The girl works from dawn until bedtime, often taking care of the baby who is just beginning to walk, who won't stop wailing. After a particularly hard day of cleaning, listening to the crying of the babe, the waif gets her alone, and "brought the pink bolster from the Frau's bed and covered the baby's face with it, pressed with all her might as he struggled." She said,

    "Lie there, silly one. You'll not cry anymore or wake up in the night. Funny, little, ugly baby."

These thirteen stories, published to great acclaim in England in 1911, concern themselves with near-rape, the stultifying life in a pension, the pretensions of those who have little but imitate those who have much, the innocent, the wicked, the murderous.

There's Sabina, working in the tiny cafe, wondering about life and death, "her dead grandmother dressed in a black silk frock ... mouth curiously tight, yet almost secretly smiling." She could understand that, "such a simple thing." But birth? "What had the man got to do with it?"

Frau Brechenmacher, with her husband at the wedding, he getting drunker and drunker, and when they get home, the memory of the wedding quickly fades, as she "lay down on the bed and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in."

And the narrator, who had created out of her imagination a husband so that the people in the pension would leave her alone finally finds that he had become "so substantial a figure that I could no longer see myself sitting on a rock with seaweed in my hair, awaiting that phantom ship for which all women love to suppose they hunger."

§     §     §

Virginia Woolf said in her diary that Katherine Mansfield was the one writer who made her jealous. In the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway reviewed in our last issue "The Garden Party" is included as a possible model for the later novel. It was written in 1922 and feels like a jewel-like miniature version of Mrs. Dalloway.

If I were going to be foolish enough to try to teach a class in short-story writing, Mansfield's story would be right there along with "Hills Like White Elephants" and "The Dead" and samples of Crane and Chekov and Lawrence and de Maupassant. The girl Laura is obviously of the nimbus where those who can afford it go to afternoon parties and stroll about the garden, "bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn." Even before it begins, the Sheridan family stands about the piano singing

    This Life is Wee-ary
    Hope comes to Die
    A Dream --- a Wa-kening...

Sweet Laura learns of the death of a poor carter in the cottages below their house and wants Mrs. Sheridan to cancel the party. Her mother tells her she is being "very absurd" but later agrees to let her take the leftover food down to the widow.

Laura with her basket goes through the cottage and into the room with the corpse, into the presence the first dead person she has ever seen:

    There lay a young man, fast asleep --- sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote; so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk on the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the land. Happy ... happy .... All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

Katherine Mansfield had little time to produce more of these gorgeous jewels. She died, of TB, in 1923, at the age of thirty-four.

The editor of In a German Pension claims that Mansfield may have been "one of the first modern voices" but more important than who-came-first is the fact that these stories are good and rich and sometimes scary and sometimes funny and, now, less than a hundred years after their birth, stand on their own as the art and craft of one who passed from the scene far too soon.

--- Preston Starr

Guide to

A Complete
Reference Guide to
The Natural Hazards that
Endanger Life on Earth

<Robert Kovach,
Bill McGuire

Remember that old take-off on the weather report: "Tomorrow There'll be Fire and Ice, Followed by The End of the Earth." Well, all the rest are here too: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Desertification, Disease, Drought, Famine, Global Warming, El Niño, Meteorites.

Each disaster for humanity is given five or six pages, with an illustration, a couple of scary photos, and maps, diagrams, and charts. For instance under "Tsunami," we are given the date and locations of the ten worst, along with intensity and mortality rates. The baddest wave? That was in the Moro Gulf in the Philippines in 1976, killed 8,000.

But it wasn't the biggest. That one befell Sanriku, Japan, in 1933, a wave of ninety-six feet. Can you imagine standing there on the beach, admiring the sunrise, and suddenly the horizon has risen some hundred feet or so straight up, and you know, you just know, you ain't going to get out in time. Is this what the surfers call "No Fear?"

Or take what Pogo used to call "Earthquacks." The biggest one in recent memory? I remember it. I wasn't in it, but I remember it because it appeared in the news in such strange fashion a week or so after it happened on July 27, 1976.

It didn't appear on the evening's news, nor on the front section of the newspapers. I found it on page eight of the San Francisco Chronicle, a tiny squib at the bottom of the page. Why? Because it happened in Tangshan, China. Since the Maoist government didn't care for negative news stories, even ones of major disasters, they made but brief mention of it in the state news service.

Something that would have filled the pages of our radio, television, and newspapers for weeks was accorded this weenie space several days after the fact. 242,000 people were killed. And I remember thinking at the time that the news is made not by the scope of a disaster but by those who do or do not like the import of it.

I suppose The Guide is apolitical. It certainly is politically innocent. Famine is yoked with "Droughts." And at the apex of the "Worst Droughts and Famines" is "Soviet Union - 1932." No mention of the fact that the famine was man-made: a product of the Soviet state policy to destroy the kulaks by starving them out. It worked. "Number of fatalities: 5,000,000."

It was a disaster --- although not a "natural" one --- and it was ignored in the United States because the Soviet correspondent to the New York Times was busy painting rosy pictures of the new Soviet life.

In truth, this whole volume seems canted to the concept that a disaster in the United States is more of a disaster than in other parts of the world. The worst fire in the last twenty-five years affected over 50,000 people in the Heilongjiang Province of China --- but the forest fire-control systems of the U. S. are featured in the accompanying article. "Landslides?" There's a huge shot of the Slumgullion landslide in Colorado which occurred several centuries ago, and had few if any fatalities. The Yungay slide of Peru in 1970 killed 18,000 people, but rates no space at all.

Photos of damage in Utah, Oklahoma and Missouri dominate the "Tornado" section, but the worst ten (in body count) include but two from the United States. The rest occurred in Bangladesh, India, Soviet Union, and Senegal. The worst, in West Bengal, affected 450,000 people.

"Flooding?" The Mississippi flood of 1993 and the European floods of 2002 get top billing, but a monster in China in 1931 (3,700,000 killed, 28,500,000 affected) is barely mentioned.

The clear message: Americans have bigger disasters not because of size, or death rates, or property damage, or grief --- but because with radio, television, and the media in general, they loom so large in our lives that they must be counted not as disasters but Disasters.

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH